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Virginia Tech football: 5 takeaways in Hokies’ loss at North Carolina

Virginia Tech is now 2-1 on the season.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina
UNC running back Michael Carter runs for a touchdown in North Carolina’s 56-45 win over Virginia Tech.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 19 Virginia Tech Hokies suffered their first defeat of the season on Saturday at No. 8 North Carolina 56-45.

As you would expect from such a high-scoring game, there’s lots to unpack here.

UNC jumped out to a big 21-0 lead early when Virginia Tech’s defense couldn’t stop anyone. More on that later.

Then, the Hokies stalled on two early drives, allowing the Tar Heels to build what would be an insurmountable lead.

The Hokies did claw back, though, pulling to within seven at 21-14, before falling behind 35-14 at halftime. Carolina would score again after Virginia Tech kicker Brian Johnson connected on a 55-yard field goal on the Hokies’ first drive in the second half to make it 42-17.

With Hendon Hooker back under center for the second half, the Hokies would run off 20 consecutive points to make the score 42-37.

Suddenly, there was hope again.

Then, Virginia Tech’s defense hit the field.

Don’t let Virginia Tech missing 15 players fool you. Yes, the Hokies were missing some important pieces on defense like Dashawn Crawford, Brion Murray and Divine Deablo, but that’s not why they lost. Not even close.

Here are five takeaways from Tech’s disappointing loss to North Carolina.

Hendon Hooker is the guy

Can we all agree that Hendon Hooker is the starting quarterback?

This offense goes to another level when Hooker is under center. Braxton Burmeister did well as a starter but limits the passing game. With Hooker, you get the running element this offense needs and a dynamic passer in the college game.

Hooker’s stats from the UNC will not blow you away, however, the energy he brought, in addition to the downfield passing game, shows you the sky is the limit for this offense.

The Hokies almost came back. If they had any semblance of a defense yesterday, Hooker could’ve brought them all the way back.

Weekly Khalil Herbert appreciation post

This guy is amazing. Another 100-yard game for the Kansas transfer, as Herbert carried the ball 18 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

We heard entering the game how good UNC’s run defense was this season. The Hokies ran for 260 yards. The UNC run defense hadn’t played an offensive line or running back like the ones at Virginia Tech has in 2020.

The only issue was why didn’t the team keep feeding Herbert?

18 carries is not enough when you are averaging almost eight yards per attempt. The headlines from this game will be centered around North Carolina’s running backs — and they are very good.

But Herbert was the best back in this game.

The offense was essentially in panic mode yesterday. That side of the ball felt the need to be perfect and maybe at times got away from Herbert. Moving forward, that cannot be the case.

James Mitchell is the best tight end in the ACC

James Mitchell can do it all. Yesterday, he had a rushing touchdown, four receptions for 103 yards and another score. He also delivered in the running game, too, springing one of Herbert’s big runs.

Other tight ends, like Brevin Jordan of Miami, may get more publicity. Why? Because he plays at Miami. Jordan is very good, but he is essentially a receiver playing tight end.

Mitchell can play the traditional tight end role because he can block. He also possesses the athleticism to line up in the slot or split out wide.

For three years now, the Hokies have had excellent players at tight end in Mitchell and Dalton Keene. Can you imagine where this offense would be if both players were utilized more last season?

There are eight games remaining in the regular season. Mitchell should be targeted heavily for the rest of the season. You need a first down? Mitchell is the guy. You want to send him deep? He can do that, too.

Historically bad defense

It was rare, but in the Bud Foster era the defense had a few stinkers. The Pitt game in 2018 comes to mind. Georgia Tech’s rushing offense on a few occasions and the bowl game vs. Cal back in 2003 are other examples.

But you had confidence Foster would fix things. And he usually did, even when he didn’t have the necessary personnel.

Yesterday. the Hokies allowed 399 rushing yards, while Sam Howell also had three touchdown passes and 257 yards. Howell missed just five times, three of which were sure drops by Dyami Brown.

The Hokies offered no resistance.

And please, do not blame COVID-19.

Of the 15 players Tech missed, only backup defensive end Zion Debose was in the two deep in the front seven. Dashawn Crawford was out, too, but not listed as unavailable.

The Hokies need Crawford, but that’s not the entire reason they gave up nearly 700 yards yesterday.

The front seven was repeatedly getting blown off the line of scrimmage. Linebackers were getting blocked by receivers. It was ugly.

And the secondary, well, it was awful. We can excuse the secondary some because it was without Divine Deablo, Chamarri Conner (who was ejected early), Brion Murray and Keonta Jenkins. Jermaine Waller was back and played fairly well outside of one play.

There’s no doubt this group has been hit hard. Caleb Farley opting out, Devon Hunter’s arrest and the weekly issues with COVID-19. Tyler Matheny is a great story and played well last week, but he really struggled yesterday, missing numerous tackles.

Hopefully, the Hokies get Deablo, Murray and Jenkins back next week.

The defense is why the Hokies lost this game. Please don’t blame Brad Cornelson, people.

Bad start for Justin Hamilton

This was technically the debut for Hamilton as defensive coordinator, as he was one of the coaches who missed the first two games due to COVID-19.

Not a great debut for the former Hokie player.

As we referenced in the last section, we always had confidence that Foster would fix things or patch them up, because we had a body of work over years proving as much. We don’t have that with Hamilton.

Hamilton is beloved in Blacksburg — and rightfully so. But there were concerns about a lack of experience in being promoted to a defensive coordinator position at this level.

Yesterday’s performance falls directly at the feet of the new defensive coordinator. That’s a part of this business. Virginia Tech fans love blaming the offensive coordinator for everything. So, it’s only fair when we look to the defensive coordinator for answers after such a performance.

The biggest question is, does he have those answers?

We are going to learn a lot about Justin Hamilton the defensive coordinator in the next few weeks. Teams are going to attack the Hokies, much the way UNC did.

How Virginia Tech responds will be interesting to watch.